“You need eyes in the back of your head,” I tell the guy showing us around the most dangerous work environment in New Zealand.
“Nah, just good communication,” he responds.
We’re standing in the mud beside a swing yarder machine with a towering gantry, one end of a flying fox-like arrangement across a valley strewn with fallen logs. Using a cable system, a large block and tackle runs along a “skyline” wire to workers on the valley floor. They clamber around the huge logs, wrapping chains around them, two or three at a time, then retreat to a safe distance as the logs are hauled back up the slope – an operation called breaking out.
Up top, a poleman unchains the logs for processing on a flat area known as the skid. The freed chains dance wildly from the skywire – I reckon my hard hat would crush like an eggshell if one swung my way. Then back down the line they go.
Forest harvesting is inherently dangerous: chain-saws, steep slopes, heavy machinery, many variables including high winds. “When a tree hits you, it doesn’t hurt you, it kills you,” says John Stulen, the Forest Industry Contractors Association chief executive.
But a spike in fatal accidents – six so far this year and 13 since January 2012 – shows the industry is failing to manage the risks. Since 2008, nearly 1,000 forest workers have suffered significant injuries, many losing limbs or being otherwise maimed. Twenty-eight have died. The rate of claims to ACC is six times the national average, twice that of the mining and infrastructure sectors and three times that of manufacturing – despite industry efforts which have significantly reduced reported injuries since 2005.
It’s noisy in the great outdoors. Everyone wears earmuffs along with other safety gear. That all-important communication is by toots – the yarder operator and the breaker-outs signal each other using “talkie-tooters”, short or long blasts indicating what’s about to happen. The system came in for criticism after a past fatality and has been modified.
Behind us, loading machines lay out logs on the skid and young men with chain-saws move in to cut them to length; the air fills with flying chips and diesel smoke. A surprising number of accidents happen around the skid area – the latest the death last month of loader driver Charles Finlay, killed as a log was being moved by another machine. It was dark, 5.30am. No one knows why Finlay, an industry veteran, had left his cab and was standing where he was. “He got hit by a log that he didn’t see coming,” says Stulen.
Finlay’s death, the sixth in seven months, comes at a bad time for the industry. It preceded the release of the Government’s workplace health and safety reforms following the Pike River mining disaster. Some of the issues that the Pike River inquiry exposed – reduced regulator oversight, lax manager attitudes, inexperience and pressure to work in hazardous conditions – resonate in forestry.
The Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment put the industry on notice that its commitment to worker safety must improve and this week began a site safety crackdown. Inspectors will visit all 330 contracting operations to check compliance with safety codes, focusing particularly on the danger areas of tree felling, breaking-out and skid sites. Critics point out that the ministry has only nine field inspectors for a sector active from Northland to Southland, and many years of diminished state resourcing for health and safety has contributed to forestry’s problems.
Finlay’s death also drew media attention to the union campaign for a Government-led inquiry into safety issues in this deunionised industry. Claiming workers are too afraid of being blacklisted to speak out, the First Union and Council of Trade Unions (CTU) launched the campaign in May, with families of some victims doing the talking about the long hours, low pay and harsh conditions their sons, husbands and fathers endured. Along with a memorial day, public meetings and private gatherings with workers, the First Union has set up the First Forestry Together website, inviting workers to contribute to the safety debate.
Finlay was on $16 an hour when he died, aged 45. He’d spent 27 years in the industry, eight in his current job, where he started on $14.80 an hour. He was regularly working 12-hour days, leaving home at 4am and often working six days. He left behind a wife, two 9-year-olds and an older son.
“He was experienced and he wasn’t tired,” Stulen says. “That company had been accident-free for 12 years.”
Stulen insists the industry is on a path towards zero tolerance for deaths. “It’s an attitude change that has to come from the top and we’re about halfway there.”
The “face” of the union campaign is Ken Callow, a tree faller killed in October 2011. His mother Caroline recalls him arriving home exhausted after successive 12 and 13-hour days – she would have to carry his chain-saw in for him. Working for a previous contractor, he suggested stopping work one day when knee-deep in snow, she told the Weekend Herald. “He was told to carry on because they had under-estimated their daily tallies and needed to fill one more truck. I’ve never been one for unions but they really need somebody to be looking out for them. Most of them are small gangs – they need a voice.”
Northland faller Chris Lawrie is the only current forest worker to speak out publicly, addressing the memorial gathering in May. He’s buried eight of his mates in 17 years. Lawrie says there’s confusion on sites about who takes responsibility for stopping work: a new code of practice puts the onus on workers to recognise hazards but says nothing about pulling out in dangerous conditions. With no allowance in contracts for downtime due to weather or safety concerns, both workers and foremen are reluctant to call off work.
“It may amount to four or five days a year – that’s a minimal cost for the loss of a life.”
Forestry’s sorry accident record has historically been linked to the “culture” of the men it attracts – rugged outdoors types with an independent streak and perhaps a hankering for the odd joint. Random drug and alcohol tests introduced by forest owners several years ago have cleaned up the industry and most contractors today have a strong safety culture – yet men are still dying.
CTU president Helen Kelly has made the issue a personal crusade, using the Official Information Act to obtain details of investigations into all 28 deaths since 2008 and drip-feeding summaries on to the First Forestry Together website and left-wing website The Standard. While investigations often find the victims at least partly to blame, Kelly says there are common underlying factors: working in high winds or wet ground which can make trees less stable; insufficient training for the task …
But Labour Minister Simon Bridges last month ruled out a Government inquiry, arguing forestry’s problem areas are well known and the new health and safety regime should be given time to bed in.
Contractors and forest owners say the union campaign is a blatant recruitment drive that won’t work, as forestry workers are their own men.
“The grandstanding of Helen Kelly is deplorable,” says Stulen. “The union is desperate – they will never get crews to unionise.
“These are people who hunt and fish and play football together; they have a culture of their own.”
But in the face of the union campaign, the contractors’ association persuaded the Forest Owners Association to agree to an inquiry. Without Government leadership, many doubt it will get to the core issues or produce enforceable solutions. Some say employers just want to drag the issue from the spotlight and cover up the problems. But the parties – owners, contractors and unions – are privately discussing the scope and terms of reference for an inquiry.
Kelly insists any inquiry must be independent and include the state regulator. She puts the chances of it going ahead at 50-50. As for the grandstanding charges, she responds: “Our interest is in making lives safer.”
Unionism collapsed in this sector in the 1990s, as labour law changes ushered in individual contracts and asset sales saw State forests pass into foreign ownership. The industry structure now verges on feudal: hundreds of contractors compete block-by-block for work from forest managers who look after the investment of absentee owners. Seven major owners now control half the industry and beneath them are 350 contractors, says First Union strategist Edward Miller.
Kelly says this structure is a large part of the problem, with contractors bidding too low to allow for adverse events, committing to unachievable targets which add to the risk of fatigue and requiring weekend work which reduces recovery time. “The feedback we get from contractors is that they are being squeezed and the agreed rates for some activities are below the minimum wage.”
A faller on the site we visit reckons the safety campaign and the media coverage generated has caused unnecessary alarm for the wives and families of bushmen. “It’s as dangerous as you make it,” he says. “You can never rule it out, but you can minimise it. The companies I’ve worked for have all been very strict on health and safety. The hours I’ve worked are not that long, generally 7 to 4.”
Miller says that experience is far from universal. In one study, 78 per cent of workers reported working more than a 45-hour week and 20 per cent worked more than 60 hours. “It’s our assessment that these accidents are taking place because commercial pressures and demand are so high. They drive wages down to keep up, work longer hours and fatigue sets in. And in forestry, a tiny mistake can be the difference between life and death.”
In a significant concession this week, Stulen told the Weekend Herald that contractors want the proposed inquiry to look at pricing – the deals they negotiate with forest owners to harvest each block. In other words, the contractors agree with one of the core issues the CTU is pinpointing.
“We are starting to investigate alternatives to price-based tendering,” Stulen says.
One of the issues is that contractors bid with limited knowledge of conditions in the block. Striking a bad lot or adverse conditions can generate production pressures or lead to corner-cutting to avoid a loss. “If you don’t get your bid right, it’s very hard to achieve your day rate,” says one contractor. “A lot of crews are having to work six days to catch up and fatigue is definitely a factor in some accidents.”
Stulen also agrees absentee ownership plays a part – while most owners are responsible they may be unaware of the realities contractors face.
The black and white nature of much of the media coverage frustrates Stulen. “Everything we say doesn’t get printed.” He says the industry made big improvements from 2005 to 2012, reducing reported injuries from around 450 a year to 320. Initiatives have included random drug testing, a forestry action plan, on-site safety training and reviews of codes of practice. The contractors’ association represents 60 per cent of harvesters including all the bigger firms. All signed up to the new safety code which took effect on July 1. Stulen links the spike in fatalities to a big lift in production to meet rising overseas demand, particularly from China.
Most contractors, he says, have a strong safety culture. Many hold “tailgate” briefings before starting work and some debrief at the end of the day. He suggests small players, some part-time, who pick up work on farm lots are less safety conscious and some are cowboys. Last summer’s drought brought a big rise in farm lot harvesting to supplement incomes and contributed to a higher accident rate. Several deaths have occurred in “machine-assisted” felling operations on farms, using bulldozers. But he concedes fatalities happen across the board.
Stulen says an under-resourced regulator hasn’t helped. Since the early 1990s, the number of inspectors has fallen as harvesting areas have multiplied – “they tend to focus on the crews they can get to easily.”
Training is another problem area. The industry has lost many experienced workers, particularly machine operators, to the Australian mining boom. Polytechs turn out hundreds of graduates with tickets but little practical experience. Experienced trainers are said to be thin on the ground. The industry training organisation was recently taken over by a new agency, Competenz, which did not respond to requests for information.
The most dangerous job, tree felling, is one most graduate to with experience. But training allowances in contracts with forest owners are woefully inadequate, a contractor told the Weekend Herald.
Stulen says a long-term solution is in sight: increased mechanisation. The industry has a vision – “no man on the hill, no hand on the saw” – which he says could apply to 80 per cent of sites. New developments include a grapple machine with a camera that can be operated from the yarder to replace breaker-outs, and a harvesting machine to replace felling with chainsaws on steep slopes.
The machines being trialled won’t come cheap and many doubt they will take over any time soon. Meantime, a huge volume of wood is due to come on stream from 2018 from plantings on erosion-prone land in the early 90s.
“About 75 per cent is on steep country, nasty stuff where machines won’t reach,” says Northland’s Chris Lawrie. “If they don’t sort it out now and bring more money into the game, it’s not hard to work out what’s going to happen.”
Perhaps then the minister will hold an inquiry.
• 6 deaths
• 90+ serious injuries
• 28 deaths
• 950+ serious injuries
Deaths in 2013
• Jan 7: Eramiha Eruera Pairama, 19. Taneatua. Struck while felling.
• Jan 17: John Sanderson, 40. 48km north-west of Whangarei. Struck when falling tree hit another, snapping branch which fell on him.
• March 26: Robert Epapara, 23. Struck while felling.
• April 22: Adam. New Plymouth. Struck while felling.
• May 20: Shane Reardon, Tolaga Bay. Killed in collision between two logging trucks.
• July 19: Charles Finlay, 45. Near Atiamuri. Hit by log on skid site.